The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, and Other Success Stories, by Rebecca Peabody

Eileen Pollard on a collection of interviews capturing important truths about the doctoral process

January 8, 2015

“You’d look ridiculous, like a hippopotamus in a fish tank,” writes Anika, a doctoral student who completed her PhD, and then moved away from academia. She is describing the catch-22 of gaining a doctorate but afterwards wanting to pursue a non-academic career. It’s surely one of the best – and most telling – lines in Rebecca Peabody’s collection of first-person narratives recounting an experience “that is often opaque, or just downright incomprehensible, to outsiders”.

Not all the accounts here offer the unerring accuracy of the hippopotamus/fish tank conundrum. In the book’s first account, Derek’s bumptiously clichéd style – “I met my wife when I was 21 years old and…I knew that this was the person that I was going to spend my life with” – is only marginally less irritating than his overweening self-confidence and sense of superiority: “I didn’t want to have too much of a tan, or look like I was really physically active, because that’s not how graduate students look.” Alas, we cannot all be as cool as you, Derek. (For his sake, I hope that’s a false name.)

These narratives make it clear that, during a PhD, candidates swing wildly between vastly inflated views of their own importance and ability – “I’d see an ad for a paralegal…and I’d think, shit, I can do all that stuff, and I’d be better than those people” – to feeling like an absolute fraud, who knows nothing, and is on the verge of being unmasked, publicly and in the nude. Equally valuable is Peabody’s interview with Karen Kelsky, the author of the blog The Professor is In. Kelsky pithily sums up the academic mindset (for which, of course, the PhD offers ample training in all the required neuroses): “Academics often think of themselves as risk-takers and radicals and fearless fighters, when in fact, as a group, they are incredibly conservative, risk averse, fearful, hypercautious, and insecure.”

Yet doctoral candidates in the UK may find themselves baulking at some of these tales, not simply because of the absence of any explanation of the US doctoral process, but also because the narrators’ frequent complaints about lack of structure seem ludicrous when set beside the lackadaisical, meandering yet brutally pressured three-years-is-your-lot conveyor belt of the UK model.

Jason, who pursued postgraduate work in German and cinema studies, but did not complete, complains that in the second part of the PhD “you’re getting much less feedback, and when you do get it, it’s weightier – it matters more”. Of course, that kind of infrequent, weighty, sometimes devastating feedback is the whole deal in Britain; it really is a baptism of fire that calls for a hardcore, realist, white-knuckle-ride series of British stories as a riposte.

Despite these reservations, I would recommend The Unruly PhD, as it captures something of the spirit of the doctoral process. As the actor (and successful PhD candidate) Peter Weller advises in an interview included here: “You can write your way into thinking, but you cannot think your way into writing.” This truth is extremely hard-won, and will resonate with anyone who has been there, or remains there. Yet the most powerful sentiment in the book draws on Weller’s observation that it is better to be disappointed after a PhD (in the job market or otherwise) than never to have pursued the dream in the first place. To echo his words: “I don’t mind the disappointment. I just don’t want the regret.”

The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, and Other Success Stories

By Rebecca Peabody
Palgrave Macmillan, 200pp, £19.00
ISBN 9781137373106 and 319463 (e-book)
Published 7 August 2014

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